"You must be out of your mind," said my good friend and
chavrusa Yehuda Leib to me. "You have an opportunity
like that, and you want to turn it down?"
The opportunity to which he was referring was an offer that I
had been given to travel to East Africa. I had been
expressing my lack of enthusiasm for the suggestion. "Look,"
I replied, "You know how much I love animals, but I just
can't see what the big deal is about seeing them in Africa. I
see them in the zoo all the time!"
This was true. I had recently begun developing outreach
programs in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, delivering shiurim
about Torah lessons to be learned from the animal
kingdom. Seeing wild animals was therefore not a novelty for
"How can you possibly compare seeing an elephant in the zoo
to seeing it in the wild?" asked Yehuda Leib in a shocked
voice. "It's totally different."
"How would you know? You've never seen them in the wild," I
pointed out. "And besides, why should it be different?"
"Trust me," he said. "You'll see that I'm right."
Two weeks later, I found myself in a small safari van bumping
along the track in Tsavo West National Park in Kenya.
Together with the other intrepid explorers, I was standing up
in the van and scanning our surroundings for wildlife from
the open roof. We had already been in the vast game reserve
for a half hour, but we had not yet seen any animals.
"Hey, look at that!" I suddenly shouted excitedly, "A
Our driver took us closer to the creature. It towered above
us as it munched nonchalantly on the leaves of a tree. We
chattered excitedly, our cameras snapping away. After
watching it for several minutes, we moved on.
Yehuda Leib was right. Seeing animals in the wild was
different from seeing them in the zoo. But it wasn't clear
why. I have seen many giraffes in my life. This giraffe was
neither bigger nor markedly different in any way from any of
them. Yet it gave me an immensely greater thrill to see
Several possible explanations presented themselves to me.
First, there was the thrill of the hunt. The animals here
were not in an expected place in a cage; we were hunting
twenty thousand square kilometers of game park for them.
Second, the sweeping vistas of the African savanna certainly
made for a better backdrop than a zoo enclosure, even a good
one. Third, we were meeting the giraffe on its own terms, in
its own habitat, rather than seeing it on display in ours.
After further contemplation, however, it seems to me that
none of these are the direct reason why this giraffe was a
greater thrill. Rather, I think that these factors enabled me
to look afresh at a creature that I had been taking for
A giraffe should always be an enthralling sight. With its
towering height, beautifully patterned skin, and stumpy horns
numbering between three and five, the giraffe meets every
criteria for an interesting sight.
In fact, according to the work Sichas Chullin, the
giraffe may have been the tachash whose skin was used
in the Mishkan. The Yerushalmi states that the
tachash is identical to an animal called the
keresh, which the gemora identifies as a very
tall, kosher, non-domesticated animal which has a single
horn, as the tachash. Sichas Chullin brings proofs
that the tachash's famous single horn was in addition
to another two, which suggests the colorful, three-horned
giraffe as the candidate.
Yes, a giraffe is undoubtedly an interesting sight. But we
possess an unfortunate capacity to become numbed to
interesting sights. Seeing animals at the zoo had become a
matter of ticking off a checklist of the animals to be seen.
Not within memory had I actually watched a giraffe and
appreciated its beauty. It was only the thrill of the hunt
and the African setting that opened my eyes to doing that.
This reminds me of an anecdote that a relative of mine, Rabbi
Yisroel HaLevi Cohen, told me. As a young schoolboy in
England, he was once walking with his class on a school trip,
when the teacher called to them all to stop. "Cohen!" he
called out. "What do you see?"
"Nothing, sir!" replied young Cohen in bewilderment.
"Nothing?" snapped the teacher. "Are you blind, boy?"
"Do you have eyes?"
"So tell me what you see!"
"Very good! What else?
"Um, leaves on the trees, branches, grass, flowers,
"Excellent!" barked the teacher, and ordered the class to
Rabbi Cohen related this tale to me in the context of an
observation that I told him about Chovos Halevovos,
the classical work of philosophy by Rabbeinu Bachya. One
section of this work is called "Shaar Habechinah," the
"gate" (task) of contemplation. There he discusses how it is
man's duty to contemplate the natural world and thereby
improve his faith in G-d.
In this context, Rabbeinu Bachya discusses some examples of
remarkable natural phenomena such as the human digestive
system. Now, I don't know about you, but I never considered
the human digestive system to be especially remarkable. After
all, it's simply a matter of biological processes, which can
in turn be explained in terms of chemistry, which can in turn
be explained by physics. It seemed a little strange to cite
this as evidence of G-d's wisdom.
But after further thought, I realized that Rabbeinu Bachya
was also aware that it can be explained scientifically.
Unlike me, that awareness did not numb him to the wonder of
the whole business.
. . . Which probably has a lot to do with why Rabbeinu
Bachya, in discussing the process of using the natural world
as a means of improving our awareness of the Creator, did not
call it "the gate (process) of amazement" but "the gate of
contemplation." Everything is amazing; it merely requires
that we give it sufficient contemplation. This point was
eloquently put by the nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman:
"I believe that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-
work of the stars,/ And the pismire [ant] is equally perfect,
and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,/ And the cow
crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,/ And a
mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of
But for the finest expression of this point, as well as a
lesson about its role in Judaism, we must turn to the
unsurpassably eloquent words of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael
Hirsch. In an essay entitled "From the Notebook of a
Wandering Jew" which is a letter to someone referred to as
N., he writes the following:
How could you think, my dear N., that your letter would still
find me within my four walls? "The winter is over, the
blossoms are showing, the time for singing has come;" could
your friend stay in the house? No, my dear. Even as a child I
envied our forefathers when, on the seder night, my
father presented them to me with their feet sandalled, their
loins girded, the wanderer's staff in their hands, the bread-
bundles on their shoulders; I would have given the sweetest
charoses for a drink of bitter water if I could have
wandered thus for forty years with them in the desert. I
almost believe that all you homebodies would one day have to
atone for your staying indoors, and when you would desire
entrance to see the marvels of Heaven, they would ask you,
"Did you see the marvels of G-d on earth?" Then, ashamed, you
would mumble, "We missed that opportunity."
How different were our Rabbis in this respect. How they
breathed and felt, thought and lived in G-d's marvelous
Nature. How they wanted to awaken our senses for all that is
sublime and beautiful in Creation. How they wanted to teach
us to fashion a wreath of adoration for G-d out of the
morning's rays and the evening blush, out of the daylight and
the night shadows, out of the star's glimmer and the flower's
scent, out of the roar of the sea and the rumble of the
thunder, the flash of the lightning. How they wanted to
demonstrate to us that every creature was a preacher of His
power, a monitor of our duties; what a Divine revelation they
made of the book of Nature.
The art of appreciation. It might be difficult to master, but
it makes the world of difference in enabling us to see a
whole different world.
Nosson Slifkin studies at the Mirrer Yeshiva and teaches
at Ohr Somayach. He is the author of the Focus Series
on the parsha, and Seasons of Life: The Reflection
of the Jewish Year in the Natural World, all published by